Lasers at Stonehenge
Editor Mike Pitts
Reviewed by Mike Sigrist
Figuring it Out
At first glance, the link between the science of archaeology and the visual arts of the modern world would be that both are to be found in museums. In fact, as this fascinating book shows, both are crucial to a realisation of what it is to be human and to better understand our own place in the present world. In exploring these two active approaches towards this comprehension (Lord Renfrew readily accepts there are others) the book successfully establishes a clear convergence of the two disciplines. His starting point is that they are both seeking to answer the questions posed by Paul Gauguin in his 1897 painting entitled 'Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?'
Interesting parallels are drawn between the contemporary artist and the archaeologist, one seeking to understand the material world by acting upon it, the other by investigating the results of such actions. Renfrew claims that over the past century or so, the visual arts have transformed themselves from their preoccupation with beauty and representation to what he describes as a vast, yet uncoordinated, research programme that looks critically at what we are and how we know what we are. Thus echoing the activities of the archaeologist, who also researches, to reveal and understand the processes that shape society.
It is easy to appreciate the visual relevance of some artists to archaeology. Pieces by Turnbull, Paolozzi and Brancusi, for example, have an affinity with the forms of Palaeolithic figures and, to my mind, the works of Richard Long often bear resemblance to archaeological excavations.
However, Renfrew also presents many surprising and entertaining examples. As when he compares Tracey Emin's unmade bed with 'debris' to a Neolithic excavation in Orkney that unearthed - guess what - an unmade bed with debris! Both could be regarded as archaeological experiences.
Even more remarkable, English artist Cornelia Parker built and fitted out a full size garden shed, blew it to smithereens with the help of military engineers and painstakingly reassembled it bit by bit in a gallery, thus merging art and archaeology in a single intent.
The author draws on a broad canvas to support his themes. For example, one chapter discusses the importance of writing, as this often plays a significant role in visual art; look at the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay and Jenny Holzer. Another, 'the archaeology of now' brings us right into the digital age where Renfrew observes that much of today's art appears as instant archaeology. Mass production and information technology have led to the dematerialisation of material culture, and very often the origination of word and image exists only in electronic form, whose security and life expectancy may be questionable.
Drawing on his distinguished archaeological experience and his tenure as Master of Jesus College, where he played a leading role in establishing the college's superb sculpture collection, Renfrew is well qualified to write this book, having a firm foot in both camps. It is handsomely illustrated with a wide variety of images, from archaeological digs and 30,000 year old cave paintings to a host of modern artists such as Duchamp, Warhol and even Damien Hirst. I hesitate to comment from the archaeologist's viewpoint but certainly for anyone interested in modern art, Figuring it Out is a very relevant, revealing and thought provoking book, and an easy and enjoyable read. Well recommended.
Mike Sigrist is a creative director of Mike Sigrist Associates design studio
Reviewed by Graeme Barker
After the Ice: a Global Human History 20,000-5,000 BC
The 15,000 years that followed the peak of the last Ice Age around 20,000 BC (the Last Glacial Maximum, or LGM) were among the most momentous in human history. Modern humans had been around since perhaps 100,000 years ago, but at 20,000 BC large parts of the world were still thinly populated by hunter-gatherers, and some (possibly including the whole American continent) may have been entirely empty of people. Global warming after the LGM, and particularly after 10,000 BC (the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene) allowed our species greatly to expand in numbers and colonise new territories. The next 15,000 years witnessed the beginnings of farming, towns, and civilisation. Steve Mithen's After the Ice is a big(622 pages long), bold, and exciting attempt to write that global history.
The book consists of 53 chapters. The first two set out what we know of the world at 20,000 BC, and how the climate changed and why. The last reflects briefly on the book's stated theme of the impact of global warming on human history (in this case, present and future, as well as past). In between, the book is organised into seven regions: Western Asia; Europe; the Americas; Greater Australia and East Asia; South Asia; and Africa. This main narrative takes up 511 pages. There are discrete endnote numbers, which refer to the following 60+ pages of detailed notes and then a bibliography of over 1,000 references, both double column and small font. In other words, this is a work of major scholarship, but designed so that the text is accessible to a wider audience than that reached by the usual archaeological textbook.
In fact, the author has taken further measures to sweeten the pill. First, the chapter titles are all National Geographic-style: 'In the Valley of Ravens', 'A Long Walk across the Hindu Kush', 'Thunderbolts in the Tropics', and so on. Second, there are no in-text line drawings, apart from a climate chart at the beginning and a map in the front of each set of regional chapters. There are two batches of plates, though these are not referred to in the narrative (and there is no List of Figures at the start, either). The first consists of attractive colour photographs of archaeological sites, many of excavations in progress, the second of black and white illustrations of archaeological artefacts. The main device to provide a readable narrative, though, is to send somebody from the present back into prehistory to observe on our behalf.
The person invented is John Lubbock. 'Who is John Lubbock? He resides in my imagination as a young man with an interest in the past and fear for the future - not his own, but that of planet earth' (p5). Lubbock of course shares his name with the Victorian antiquary who wrote the pioneering Prehistoric Times in 1865. Mithen tells us (p6) that he thought of sending Lubbock Senior back into the past to shock him with how different things were (or we think were!) compared with what he thought about the prehistoric past in 1865, but he decided a modern-day Lubbock would be more appropriate as he had still to make his mark on the world.
Luckily for us, modern Lubbock happens to have Prehistoric Times with him to read along the way, so he (and we) can appreciate the progress archaeologists have made in the study of world prehistory since then. The result is a mix of narrative about how the various archaeologists involved in the particular sites have come to the conclusions they have, on the one hand, and, on the other, Lubbock's observations on 'life as it was being lived' by whatever community his Tardis telephone box has happened to land amongst.
Thus Chapter 28, 'Virginity Reconsidered', sub-titled 'Hunter-Gatherers of Tierra del Fuego and in the Amazon, 11,500-6,000 BC', starts with a typical 'setting the scene' opening. 'It is 11,000 BC. The cool water of Chinchihuapi Creek laps across John Lubbock's toes as he sits quietly upon its bank pondering the journey ahead, one that will take him through American history until he reaches 5,000 BC ... other than for a kingfisher perching upon an overhanging branch, Lubbock sits alone' (p259).
Lubbock walks from the site of Monte Verde in Chile south to Patagonia, where he joins a hunter-gatherer group. At their campfire he reads a few pages from Prehistoric Times. This allows the author to break into the narrative to tell us what Victorian Lubbock knew from his friend Charles Darwin about the people of Tierra del Fuego encountered in the voyage of the Beagle, and to comment on the kind of judgements made by the Victorians about such 'primitive races'. There then follows a description of the archaeological discovery of the major South American sites, presenting an account of Anna Roosevelt's work at the Pedra Pintada painted cave in the Amazon, occupied from c 10,800 BC.
Having read this necessary archaeological background, we then return to the 'this is how it was' mode, with Lubbock visiting the cave's occupants and spending a few days with them helping to hunt, fish, and gather. 'A woman crouches and with a stone knife removes the fish's head. This is offered to a young man, the fish bearer, who takes it with a grin. He sucks at each eye-socket in turn while blood and juices trickle down his chest. With that preliminary over, the fish is taken outside and gutted' (pp262-3). That text is supported in the notes on the chapter by the comment (p546): 'fish have always been one of the gastronomic pleasures of the Amazon, with the eyeballs of the massive fruit-eating tambaqui acknowledged as a delicacy', that statement in turn supported by an appropriate reference to the Bibliography. This is a typical example of how every attempt is made through the text to base the 'imaginative reconstruction' descriptions on formal archaeological evidence, ethnographic inference, and so on.
My main quibble is that any overarching theme, for example an argument about climatic change and the complexity of people's reactions to it, is rather lost in the innumerable site stories, which is why I suspect for many readers this will be more of a storybook to dip into than a coherent read with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It is also a pity that, given the quality of the publishers and the scale of the enterprise, there are an awful lot of typos, from site names in the photographs (Guilá Naquitiz for Naquitz, for example), to people's names (Robert Balley for Bailey), to text mishaps ('this reduced decay, it caused although yellow and brown staining', p411; 'a narrative about human lives rather a catalogue of archaeological finds', p504), even to chapter headings ('hunger-gatherer sendentism', p40).
The author writes clearly for the most part, though I found the 'smash, bang, wallop' choice of some of the language, for example when he is trying to convey the scale of sudden climatic change, pretty irksome. It is a difficult path to tread, for a text somewhere between a Clan of the Cave Bear-type novel and academic monographs like Mithen's own elegantly argued and influential Thoughtful Foragers or Prehistory of the Mind . At first I found the style and format grating, with the Lubbock device over-stretched and wearisome, woven around the author's excellent presentation of discoveries and debates. By persevering, though, I came to engage enjoyably with the 'word picture' reconstructions, as long as I ignored Lubbock and his global wanderings and pseudo-observations on the folk he encountered. There is absolutely no doubt about the range and depth of scholarship that underpins After the Ice , and I learned a huge amount every time I dipped into it.
The real success of the book will be if it succeeds with a wide audience of the kind normally targeted by a publisher like Weidenfeld and Nicolson, as well as or instead of professional academics like me. The very reasonable price (in terms of academic texts) suggests that the publishers have every confidence in a large print run selling well. I am uncertain how After the Ice will go down with the general public, or with readers of British Archaeology , but Mithen deserves archaeologists' gratitude and admiration for taking on such a huge project and having the courage to try to tell it to the wider public in the way he has done.
Graeme Barker is Dean of Graduate Studies and Professor of Archaeology at the University of Leicester.
Anglo-Saxons in Europe
Reviewed by Chris Loveluck
Early Medieval Settlements: the Archaeology of Rural Communities in North-West Europe 400-900
This work provides an important overview of developments in the archaeology of rural settlements around the North Sea, primarily between AD 400 and 700, with further discussion of 8th to 11th century evidence. The survey aims to encourage the examination of Anglo-Saxon settlements in their European context. The evidence is discussed thematically: the built environment - houses and households; influences on settlement structure; changing territorial and demographic contexts; farming practices; the role of trade and non-agrarian production, and the development of rural centres.
The main focus is on the North Sea coastal regions from Denmark westwards, with the northern reaches of the Rivers Meuse and Rhine forming the western boundary of detailed study. This area was selected 'because it was in close cultural and economic contact with England and includes the regions from which the Anglo-Saxons believed their forebears to have originated'. The archaeological trends from this 'North Sea zone' are compared with developments in eastern and south-eastern England, enabling a much-needed assessment of the extent to which the history of Anglo-Saxon settlement evolution mirrored or diverged from parallels on the Continent, predominantly east of the Rhine. Greater similarities than previously observed are identified between 5th to 6th century Anglo-Saxon settlements and their contemporaries of the 'Loxstedt-type' in north-west Germany, reinforcing models of Continental influence, if not migration. 'Settlement shift' is suggested as a phenomenon common to the evolution of both Early Anglo-Saxon and Continental settlements.
The author considers archaeological data in northern France and Belgium to be less comparable to Anglo-Saxon evidence, and too limited in scale to enable comparative evaluation of rural settlements. Hence the material from northern Gaul is not covered in detail. This view diminishes the value of the French and Belgian settlement evidence for comparative purposes too much, particularly in the light of recent, major excavations, published in at least interim form between 1995 and 1999. Indeed, it can be argued that the settlement differentiation seen in excavations of 7th to 10th century monasteries, secular centres and larger agglomerations, in northern France and Belgium, provides much closer parallels to Mid Saxon England than contemporary sites in north-west Germany or Denmark.
The book is especially strong in its social analysis of buildings and settlement morphology, reflecting the author's long-standing research in this field.
Hamerow is critical of the limited surface areas of excavations in British Early Medieval settlement archaeology; instead, she favours the more extensive methodology used around the Continental North Sea coast. Surprisingly, the value of the more detailed analysis of archaeological deposit formation conducted in Britain is largely ignored. The latter has suggested, for example, that the extent of Anglo-Saxon settlement mobility may have been more limited than in the area beyond the Rhine. Nevertheless, Hamerow has produced a fundamentally important comparison of the rural settlement and social history of Early Medieval communities around the North Sea, which demonstrates beyond doubt the value of studying Britain within the context of mainland Europe.
Chris Loveluck is a Research Fellow at the University of Southampton studying the archaeology of Carolingian Europe.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005